Neal, experts discuss state's opioid epidemic; scourge 'no longer heavily urbanized'

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SHELBURNE FALLS — The opioid epidemic is no longer an "urban problem;" it has worked its way into small towns, including those in Western Massachusetts, and solving it will take a community effort, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said at a forum Thursday morning.

Neal, along with Michael Botticelli, a former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and local officials from Franklin County gathered at Memorial Hall in downtown Shelburne Falls to talk with residents about the scourge of opioids that claimed more than 2,000 Massachusetts lives from overdoses last year.

"This was an issue that people thought was heavily urbanized, and it is no longer heavily urbanized," Neal said.

Botticelli, who was recently appointed executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, said he was proud of Massachusetts being a national leader in addiction-recovery efforts and shared concerns that the current federal administration will walk backward the progress that has been made.

"I hope this administration doesn't muck it up," Botticelli said. "What we do on the state and local level matters even more. Even though we have incredible leadership with our governor here and our attorney general here, they can't insulate us from everything that happens to us on the federal level."

That progress includes making addiction-recovery centers more available and focusing on getting treatment for addicts who come into contact with law enforcement, according to Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan.

About five years ago, Sullivan began noticing a pattern of overdose deaths while reviewing daily unattended death reports and realized that data collection related to opioid-related deaths was outdated.

At that time, there were also treatment beds or detox centers in the 51 communities he represents in Franklin and Hampshire counties, Sullivan said.

Since then, recovery centers have opened in Greenfield, North Quabbin and Northampton, he said.

Responding to a question from Neal about how his office works to get defendants the treatment they need while satisfying victims of violent crime who want perpetrators punished, Sullivan said prevention is key.

Generally, by the time addicts get to the point of committing a serious violent crime, they might already have some other, less-serious criminal offenses on their record, Sullivan said.

"For those type of crimes where people have been terrorized, there has to be accountability," Sullivan said. "You want to catch people early on."

Shelburne police Chief Gregory Bardwell said that it's his goal to make sure members of the community feel comfortable interacting with his department.

In situations that involve children or teenagers committing minor offenses, like graffiti, Bardwell hopes to make sure those interactions are positive "learning opportunities" for the youths.

If small encounters with police "rub them the wrong way," those individuals will be less likely to come to disclose their addictions or go to police for assistance in the future, Bardwell said.

The department is "making sure we can hammer the younger crowd: look, we're human, come talk to us," Bardwell said. "The Police Department is not scary. We're not scary people."

The availability to take individuals into protective custody after administering the overdose-reversal drug Narcan has also made it easier for officers to make sure they get follow-up treatment for their addictions at a hospital, he said.

"It's generational," Sullivan said about the need to focus prevention efforts on youths. "We blew it. We blew it over the last 25 years, because we allowed pills to be distributed like candy."

Prescription painkillers have been linked to their rise in heroin use, and health care officials are working to find the balance between helping their patients in need and finding alternative solutions other than opiate drugs, according to Cindy Russo, president and chief administrative officer at Baystate Franklin Medical Center.

Doctors at the hospital have taken a "safe prescriber pledge," which acknowledges a list of efforts to prevent the misuse, overuse and theft of opiate drugs, and implemented an addiction screening process for patients who enter the hospital, Russo said.

The hospital is also taking a look at options like telemedicine to work with patients in more rural areas of the state, she said.

Annie Parkinson, regional coordinator for the Central and Western Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, said that in order to stem the epidemic, individuals with substance-addiction issues need access to the immediate care that is available to those with other health care issues.

"I'm not mad, I'm enraged, because I buried a friend at the age of 16 and, since then, I buried over 100 people in my life due to substance use," said a crying Parkinson, who has been in recovery for 35 years.

When Parkinson had heart surgery, she spent time in a hospital, had a visiting nurse and physical therapist in her home, and later used a free bus available to seniors when she couldn't drive.

But when she went back to work and needed to get a patient into a detox program, they were only provided with five days of care before being discharged, she said.

"It took a whole community to raise me up out of heart disease," Parkinson said. "It will take a whole community to raise us out of addiction."


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